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Mounting Evidence Against a Republican Wave

At the start of this year’s midterm campaign, analysts and political insiders had every reason to expect a strong Republican showing this November. President Biden’s approval rating was in the low 40s, and the president’s party has a long history of struggling in midterm elections.

But as the general election campaign kicks off, it becomes increasingly difficult to find concrete signs of Republican strength.

Tuesday’s strong Democratic performance in a special congressional election in New York’s 19th District is just the latest example. On paper, this classic battleground district in the Hudson Valley and Catskills is exactly where Republicans would be expected to flip a seat in the so-called wave election. But Democrat Pat Ryan prevailed over a strong Republican candidate, Marc Molinaro, by about two percentage points, besting Biden’s narrow victory in the district two years ago.

The result adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that Democrats have rebounded following the Supreme Court’s decision in late June to overturn Roe v. Calf. No matter the indicator, it’s hard to see clear signs of a Republican advantage.

A special election would be easy to rule out. But he is not alone.

There have been five congressional special elections since the Dobbs court ruling overturned Roe, and Democrats have outperformed Biden in 2020 in four of them. In the fifth district, Alaska’s House of Representatives at-large special, the rank-order vote count isn’t complete, but he appears poised to overtake it there, too.

On average, Republicans carried the entire four districts by 3.7 percentage points, compared to Donald J. Trump’s 7.7-point lead in the same districts two years ago. The results are not simply worse than expected for Republicans; they are simply poor. Republicans must outperform Trump, who lost the national vote by 4.5 points in 2020, to retake the House, let alone contemplate winning the Senate.

Special legislative elections are idiosyncratic, low-turnout affairs, and these races were no exception. They had a relatively higher share of white voters in most rural districts that were not representative of the country. Voters participating in primary or special elections are also unrepresentative, as highly educated and well-informed voters generally make up a large portion of the vote. Those two factors likely converged to the advantage of Democrats in the four completed districts. The results showed higher participation in highly educated liberal enclaves or university towns, such as Ithaca in the 23rd District of New York, while participation in other parts of the districts lagged behind.

But strength among high-turnout white voters can carry a party pretty far in low-turnout midterms, which tend to have a relatively whiter electorate. Perhaps in part for that reason, there is a decent historical relationship between special election results and midterm results. And before Dobbs, Republicans were outscoring Trump in special congressional elections. Since then, the pattern has reversed.

While there is plenty of room for debate about what exactly the special election results for November mean, there is no question that the results are clearly positive for Democrats.

Democrats have made steady gains on the generic congressional ticket, a poll question that asks voters whether they prefer Democrats or Republicans for Congress.

Overall, Democrats now have the slightest edge on this measure, according to The FiveThirtyEight Tracker. That represents a three-point swing toward Democrats from mid-June, when Republicans were leading before the Dobbs ruling.

An adjusted generic ticket represents a real improvement for Democrats. If the polls are correct, a big “yes” after the last few cycles, it suggests a fairly competitive district-by-district battle for control of the House, rather than the expected Republican defeat.

Realistically, Republicans would still be heavily favored: the House map is still modestly tilted in their favor, and Democrats would have to win a large chunk of competitive races to keep the House. But the notion that Democrats can even dream of controlling the House is a notable turnaround from earlier in the cycle, when the House was pretty much included in the Republican column.

It’s still a bit early to see the polls pitting Democratic candidates against Republicans in specific races. Many candidates remain unknown and the general election campaign is just beginning.

But early state and district polls look relatively promising for Democrats. That’s especially true in the Senate, where a simple average of polls might even show that Democrats are poised for a win.

House votes are consistent with the results of the generic ballot. On average, Democrats trail Biden’s performance by 4.7 points in 40 nonpartisan House polls conducted since Dobbs’ decision. That would be consistent with a close national vote.

After recent cycles of poll failure, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of state polls, especially in relatively white working-class battleground states where polls seem to have consistently underestimated Republicans.

But here again, the long-awaited “red wave” is nowhere to be found.

This is a bit strange, but it’s a surprisingly useful measurement and doesn’t show much of a red wave either.

Washington State has a top-two primary in which all candidates from both parties appear on the same primary ballot; the top two candidates advance to the general election.

As a result, the Washington primary is much more like a general election than a typical primary: Not only are all voters eligible, but voters can also choose the Democrat or Republican of their choice in each race. For good measure, Washington has universal mail-in voting, which tends to keep turnout fairly high. It’s more like the typical midterm electorate than some of the recent special elections.

Washington primary results generally do a decent job of predicting the outcome of the fall election. In some years, Democrats do slightly better in November than they did in the primary; in other years, Republicans do. But it is usually not very different. In hindsight, the strong Republican showing in the 2020 Washington primary was one of the best reasons to doubt the polls heading into November 2020.

This cycle, Democratic House candidates were two points behind Biden’s performance in 2020 (excluding the two districts where pro-impeachment Republicans in safe GOP districts clearly benefited from considerable levels of cross-strategic support from Democrats). ).

Once again, it’s a result consistent with a fairly split national vote for the House.

Of all the indicators, primary elections are probably the messiest measure of the national political environment. From state to state and cycle to cycle, voters may have a very compelling reason to show up, or no reason to vote at all. A strong or weak Democratic or Republican primary turnout may mean absolutely nothing.

But if you add up all the states, the vagaries of individual state primaries more or less cancel out. In recent decades, turnout in partisan primaries correlates relatively well with midterm election results.

In 15 primaries since the court’s ruling, 52.5 percent of primary voters have voted in the Republican primaries compared to 48 percent in the same states in 2018, according to collected data by pollster John Couvillon. The latest midterm is used as a point of comparison due to the single-party presidential primary in 2020.

Of course, 2018 was a good year for the Democrats. In the end, they won 54 percent of the main party’s vote and easily carried the house. So they have room to do a little worse than they did in 2018 and still put in a respectable performance. In fact, a 4.5-point change from 2018 would make for a fairly close national vote in the House, with perhaps a slight Republican edge, depending on how you look at unopposed races.

And that 4.5-point Republican outperformance is slightly worse for Republicans than it was at the beginning of the year. Before Roe, Republicans were 6.7 points better than they were in the 2018 primaries in the same states. It’s hard to read much into this change: the primaries, again, are very idiosyncratic, with the competitiveness of different races and eligibility rules making a big difference. But the change, while unreliable, is consistent with the broader national story.

There is still one measure that is positive for Republicans: President Biden’s approval rating.

It’s in the low 40s, according to FiveThirtyEight, though it appears to have risen alongside Democratic fortunes in recent months.

It’s hard to think of any precedent for the president’s party doing even half decently with such an unpopular president. The closest recent analog might be Jimmy Carter in 1978. He kept control of Congress despite an approval rating of around 50 percent. (His approval rating was similar to Biden’s in August, but rose after the Camp David Accords in September.)

Perhaps someone could interpret Democratic control of the House in the 1950 midterm elections as analogous, though Democrats lost 28 seats and saw a seven-point net shift toward Republicans.

Ultimately, Biden’s approval rating may drag Democrats down. He may even start dragging them down for the other measures even before the fall election.

But for now, his approval rating stands out as the only strong metric arguing for a decisive Republican victory this fall.


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